Saturday, March 31, 2007

World Conference (aka Long-suffering)

This has been a whirlwind event. I've been more involved with the running of the Conference this year, and so it seemed even more packed than usual - plus staying with Susan (one of the "higher-ups" in the church) and knowing more people from having attended Seminary for two years now and constantly stopping to talk to people and make and nurture connections all over the world... Conference has been a mile-a-minute event. All this as preface to an apology for not having posted this week. (I figured, if you were interested in following the Conference events, you'd have been doing it anyway.)

Of course, the biggest thing to happen was the adoption of President Veazey's "Words of Council to the Church" as inspired and authorizing inclusion in the canon of church doctrine (see above). But a more subtle aspect of Conference was an increased emphasis on discernment, both in the explicit exercise of small groups gathering for spiritual searching and sharing on the direction for the church, and in the increased opportunities for discussion of topics at Conference. In the past, "discussion" of issues has taken place on the Conference floor - in front of thousands of people and under Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure. (Which is to say, it wasn't "discussion" at all, but often political jockeying.) This year, we have been facilitating discussions on topics ranging from homosexuality to drinking and cohabitation-before-marriage in different cultures to war and peace to increasing participation of non-North American members in the life and leadership of the church. In the discussion sessions I attended (both as a facilitator and a participant), I saw several different perspectives honorably expressed and received, and I learned a great deal.

A key moment for me was in a discussion group on the issue of homosexuality. Some were representatives of other countries and cultures where, for example, in Europe homosexuality is less of an issue than in the US, and in Africa where the idea is so unacceptable that it doesn't even merit discussion in the African church. And, of course, there were plenty of North Americans who represented the familiar spectrum of viewpoints. There were also members of the church committee tasked with exploring the issue in depth and reporting to the church their findings.

At one point, a brother from Africa rose to say that for him the issue isn't one of sexuality but of interpretation of scripture. He went on to ask (rhetorically) when does a scripture "expire," when can we no longer obey it or when can we replace it with a newer and better scripture. That was a point, in my opinion, well made. Of course, we do that all the time - ignore some scriptures and lift up others, according to our understandings and sentiments at the time, and even how we read the scriptures we do lift up is affected by the lenses and understandings we bring to the text (we read into the scriptures as much as they tell us of their own accord).

Throughout the session, but particularly toward the end, the committee members explained something that seemed to me to be key. Other Christian churches have dealt with the issue by either wholesale exclusion or wholesale acceptance - and both positions have cost those communities members and integrity. The committee was searching for a third way, a way of bringing together different positions in communion, a strategy that has not been explicitly adopted or attempted by any other Christian church (to our knowledge).

All of a sudden, it dawned on me that this was precisely the Christ-like thing to do! I had always approached the issue as one of seeking justice and fairness for my other-sexual brothers and sisters, considering conservatives as retrogrades and oppressors. But in this discussion I heard of the genuine struggle they were having, and realized that they were confronting some very powerful voices inside themselves, and that to force such a conclusion on them without serious and long-term work would be unkind and un-Christ-like. If I am to honor my "enemies" in this case, I have to allow them to hold their views as long as they genuinely believe those views to be mandated by God. This comes at the expense, of course, of some of my brothers and sisters receiving justice, and that hurts, too.

To be exclusionary is un-Christ-like, certainly, and our church's continued policies in that manner remain an open wound on our corporate body. But to be "open and affirming" (as much as I would like our church to be, and as much as I believe that to be the right thing to do) would be just as cruel to many of our members as I believe our current practice is to others. I cannot reconcile myself to liberate some of my brothers and sisters by foisting the chains of exclusion and struggle on others. Our task is to, as a church, open a healthy and respectful space wherein people of profoundly different perspectives can share together, can journey together. I am convinced that for most people it is only through genuine, mutual and respectful relationships that profound change will come. And that requires patience. (And an old synonym for patience is long-suffering.)

I came out of that discussion session genuinely changed. In the perspective of my "side", it is a bad change - I am no longer so ardently in support of "winning" regardless of cost. But I have to hold myself accountable to the gospel, and confront the possibility of changing to what I didn't think possible, ending up somewhere I earlier thought to be bad, changing priorities, discerning what is most important and open to the possibility that what I thought was most important might not be the case.

I'll take away a lot of things from this Conference, but this will be among the most important. Not expecting to, I experienced metanoia, "repentance," a change of thinking/knowing/heart.

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  • I'm not sure that privileging one injustice over another is very just... the issue of sexual injustice is one I have thought about for a long time, and have moved through various positions of thinking on. At this point, there is still one view holding a huge amount of power in the debate and holding another group ransom, not allowing persons to fully be who they are. I don't know how to move through this without hurting each other, I don't know if we can. I do know that there is actual suffering going on in the lives of people who are not allowed to be themselves in the church, and that is a justice issue.

    Patience is something that should be chosen, not inflicted on a person. In my mind, it is in no way appropriate to ask for patience from an oppressed group if one is in a position where one has power and privilege, and that is exactly what our hetero-normative, non-questioning-of-normative-family-structures church has been doing for far too long.

    I am pleased that we as a church are learning how to engage more respectfully in dialog with one another, I'll be even more pleased when the stories of our oppressed brothers and sisters have voice within the authority structures of the church.

    We'll have to chat about this sometime in the future.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 12:12 PM  

  • Shannon, I completely agree - and it isn't easy or clear what I feel just yet. (Perhaps I'm still in shock from having to change.) :-)

    I agree that patience is something that should be chosen, not inflicted (good word choice, by the way). And I agree that our community has been and is hetero-normative (including the non-questioning of hetero-normativity, though I think that is becoming less so as this discussion labors on), and that it is wrong (and all too easy) for those in power to maintain that power-position under the guise of mercy or the like. That is a dangerous pattern to get into - and I certainly am one who "benefits" from the hetero-normative situation in my heterosexuality. (Although that isn't completely the case, and was explicitly not the case when I was being denied priesthood while co-habitating with Christie before marriage... speaking of the broader normative-family-structures thing.)

    Going into the discussion, I was of the position that this oppression must be done away with immediately for the sake of justice. But coming out of it, I began to feel some sympathy for (not with) my hetero-centrist sisters and brothers. I came out of there recognizing the hurt and struggle they are experiencing (while not disregarding the hurt and struggle of those in my own camp, too).

    And since I hold (perhaps without grounds) my queer brothers and sisters (a grouping in which I include myself) in such high esteem, I felt more comfortable talking to "my" people about our need to sacrifice and have patience for the sake of the others. (As I write this, however, I see the weakness of the argument, by analogy like speaking to slaves asking them for patience and long-suffering instead of action to end or resist slavery.) And I don't want to speak that way.

    I guess, at this point, I'm feeling this more for myself - and it isn't a move to abandon the struggle or argument for justice for all. But I came out of the meeting more interested in the short term in creating more space for genuine, respectful exchange.

    I've often wondered if Jesus made personal decisions that he didn't want or expect others to take up as policy. I want the struggle to continue - I don't want the issue to disappear or the argument to move more slowly (it's already painfully slow for so many of us). But in my heart, at least right now, this is a position I feel led to for the sake of community. (And I recognize that if everyone on the queer side of the argument took that same position, we might never advance past or challenge the injustice.)

    Thanks, Shannon, for your pushing back. We will have to chat more about this in the future. Right now, I'm conflicted, but strangely at peace about it, too. Weird.

    By Blogger Christian, at 12:38 PM  

  • I thought this might interest you as you mention it in your post. The following is from

    A delegate from Zambia atteneded one of the information sessions presented by the Homosexuality Committee. He asked questions. Sensing that he wasn't getting full explanations, a member of the committee met with him afterward and they talked. Still feeling that he had more questions, she sent him a note asking if he wanted to talk further. He definitely did. They met for lunch.

    She carefully went through all the situations which the criptures addressed and explained how these were not the same situations we are dealing with today. He was particularly perplexed at Mark Dixon's statement as to how he and his partner are welcomed in his congregation and he continues to serve as an elder. So the whole 1982 advance, recession, and re-affirmation came about.

    He kept saying "I didn't know that" or "I am glad to know that" She cited all the twin studies that have been done and all the complexities which might have an influence. He was like a sponge as he kept saying "I didn't know that." Finally she suggested that people in Zambia might be interested in knowing some of this things. His answer came back like a bullet.

    When can you come?

    By Blogger Sean Langdon, at 6:55 PM  

  • I am in a new, weird place too, after this conference. I have been an advocate for glbt in my congregation, mission center, and on the cybercongregation for many years. I was assumed to be straight.

    I threw facts and information, scripture, and guilt on others as fast as they threw it back. Not one person changed, and everyone was constantly in a defensive mode, vigilantly watching for and exposing the missteps and moral ineptness of the other.

    A year ago I was presented with a Priesthood call. The people of my congregation were still proclaiming "kill them all!" when the issue came up. I decided that I couldn't serve my congregation and also destroy it by challenging them to accept a gay priesthood call. So I came out instead.

    I asked my congregation and the cybercongregation to prayerfully share the pains and joys of integrating "openly gay" into my reality. I've shared my stories of rejection, acceptance, violence, threats of violence along the way. By trusting them, they are learning to trust their questions and fears and struggles with me. By taking condemnation out of my rhetoric, people have the safety to think out loud, and struggle, and change. My congregation now largely supports priesthood and marriage for glbt.

    At this conference I met many from the cybercongregation in person, and several are truly in distress because their theological structures are inadequate to explain their love and respect of me. Several others have changed their views completely.

    I'm explaining in this detail because I think the many Saints of the US are finding themselves in this place. For the first time they are willing to struggle and agonize with us, and therefore this is a time for gentleness and compassion and humility.

    The tension of this is brutal for me. This approach is perceived as weak. There are some glbt in my life who are hurting so badly, and cry for outrage, but I think outrage is counterproductive at this moment. I think we need to engage this discussion with humility and respect for each one's reality, without condescension. I'm trying to find where Jesus would be at this juncture in our denominational life. Turning the other cheek, perhaps. Stacie

    By Blogger stacie, at 9:49 PM  

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